The Portrait of a Lady: Chapter 5 - Summary & Analysis

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Chapter V


      Back to present at Gardencourt we learn more about the background of the Touchett family. Ralph was sent to Harvard and then to Oxford for three years to “disamericanise” him. Oxford swallowed up Harvard, and Ralph at last became English. Unfortunately he had contracted tuberculosis, but it had also afforded him with an excuse for considerable travel abroad. Thus, he was widely-traveled young man, refined, sardonic and self-critical.

      Ralph is very inquisitive regarding his mother’s plans for Isabel and she finally tells him to stop talking about her as if she were a yard of calico. It is agreed between the mother and the sori that Isabel should stay for a long period at Gardencourt.

      Later in the evening Mr. and Mrs. Touchett retire after dinner and Ralph shows Isabel the pictures at her request in spite of the insufficient light in the picture gallery. She playfully asks & Ralph to show her a ghost, which her romantic readings have suggested, inhabits every old European castle. Ralph replies that she would never see a ghost because she had no unpleasant knowledge, no suffering. He insists that Isabel should try to be as happy as possible. Soon Ralph shows her to her bedroom and returns to the empty drawing-room.

Critical Analysis

      The nature of Isabel’s quest is made explicit here. She wishes to know all of life, including pain and suffering. Like all young idealists, Isabel wants to drink at the very fountain of knowledge, but her innocence and romantic enthusiasm lead her to believe that it will make her even happier than her father’s legacy has already done. Ralph alone recognizes that even unknown vistas of knowledge do not guarantee happiness.

      Isabel in this chapter justifies Ralph’s use of the word ‘‘presumptuous” as she reveals herself as a charming, determined, intelligent and sensitive girl who is nevertheless inexperienced and a little smug.

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